Sundance - Choke



Adapt someone's book into movie form and you should always tread lightly -- because, believe it or not, lots of people do read, and they don't like their favorite stories ruined.

Adapt Chuck Palahniuk's book into movie form and you should be extra careful -- because the author has lots of fans, and his books are notoriously difficult beasts to tame.

So as a big fan of the novelist -- and also as a passionate movie nerd -- I'm happy to announce that Mr. Palahniuk is now two-for-two where cinematic adaptations are concerned. Yeah, I'm a huge fan of David Fincher's Fight Club. Who isn't? And while certain things have been altered from the source material, it's pretty surprising how close Clark Gregg's version of Choke sticks to the book. Better yet, the changes actually seem to work! (Books and movies being completely different animals, and all that jazz...)

Sam Rockwell plays a sex addict who spends his days working at a Colonial Village theme park and his nights pretending to choke while dining in restaurants. (It's a lot like the Fight Club narrator's desperate need for human contact, but I'll let you guys figure that stuff out for yourself.) Despite the fact that he's got all sorts of unseemly shortcomings, Rockwell's Victor Mancini is a strangely affable character. He takes care of his ailing mom, he's devoted to his misfit friends, and he's pretty damn open about his need for constant sex. In the hands of Sam Rockwell, this is an endlessly fascinating character: Likable yet sleazy, amusing yet a little sad, smart but not ... well, let's not spoil anything.

More of a multi-directional character study than a traditional three-act story, Choke follows Victor on a wild array of amusing activities. He falls for a doe-eyed doctor while visiting his mom, but Vic is afraid to divulge the details of his non-stop dalliances, and so a potentially "normal" relationship is bypassed in favor of a girl who wants to "play rape" (in one truly hilarious sequence). He has a loyal friend who can't stop masturbating -- until he meets a sexy pole-dancer. He receives monthly checks from a list of previous "saviors," and Vic is just thrilled to give these strangers some "meaning" in their life. (Apparently saving a stranger from choking has an unusual effect on the Heimlich-suppliers.)

Best of all, actor-turned-director Clark Gregg handles all the potentially disgusting material with a strong sense of pacing, wit, and color. Although Choke is definitely best described as a "dark comedy," the flick never gets too dark, too ugly, or overly obsessed with bodily functions. It's a really impressive balancing act, all things considered, to tackle this sort of subject matter and come up with a movie so unexpectedly vibrant. Choke is funny, strange, and altogether entertaining, thanks mostly to Rockwell's force-of-nature lead performance, but also because of a writer / director who loves the source material enough not to copy it like a blueprint.

Toss in some great support work from Kelly Macdonald, Anjelica Huston, and scene-stealer Brad William Henke, and you've got a light/dark, sick/sincere, weird/warm sex comedy that succeeds because of its constant contradictions, and not despite them.